When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:
This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are doing now is altogether the same stuff as what the rebels did during the Cultural Revolution. All they want is to create chaos under the heavens.
As the leading living victim of those ten years of terror Deng could not tolerate chaos or a revival of mob rule. What he did not and does not comprehend is that Tiananmen Square 1989 was virtually the mirror opposite of Tiananmen Square of 1966.
The million-strong Red Guard demonstrations at the outset of the Cultural Revolution re-created the hysteria of Nazi Nuremberg; this year’s protest was redolent of an urban Woodstock. The Red Guards were conjured up by the revolutionary incitement of Chairman Mao; this year’s demonstrations were a genuine grass-roots protest, if one skillfully organized by student activists. The Red Guards worshiped the living Mao; the prodemocracy protesters worshiped nobody, though they sprang into action out of affectionate respect for the dead “liberal,” Hu Yaobang. The Red Guards rallied to Mao’s drumbeat for proletarian egalitarianism; this year’s students called for universal freedom, symbolized by their styrofoam goddess of liberty. The cultural revolutionaries, fueled by hate, marched forth from Tiananmen Square to “drag out,” abuse, and frequently murder “capitalist roaders.” This year’s would-be democrats demanded the resignations of Deng Xiaoping and Li Peng, but showed pacifist solicitude even for troops sent to suppress them.
For all these stark contrasts, both protesters and repressers of 1989 acted within the dark penumbra of the Cultural Revolution. Deng and his accomplices were obsessed with the memory of the disorder and destruction unleashed by the Red Guards in the cities of China a quarter of a century ago. The upheaval exhilarated Mao who initiated it, but still unnerves his surviving colleagues of the Long March generation, most of whom were purged and disgraced, along with virtually the entire upper echelon of the Chinese Communist party (CCP).
Mao’s onetime heir apparent, head of state Liu Shaoqi, died in anonymity after a long period of medical neglect. Others were persecuted to death or committed suicide. Deng himself escaped relatively lightly, with public humiliation and exile to a menial job in south China. He was probably saved from a worse fate by three decades of loyalty to Mao as a member of his innermost circle. One of his sons, however, was thrown out of a window and crippled for life. Yang Shangkun, today China’s president and Deng’s hatchet man, the man who has been calling for harsh treatment of the students, was a key Central Committee official then, and one of the first to be dismissed, followed by Peng Zhen, then the mayor of Beijing, now, at eighty-seven, one of the hardest of the old …